As Americans celebrate Thanksgiving this week, Michael Duffy, OFM, a team member at St. Francis Inn in Philadelphia for nearly 25 years, offers thoughts on the meaning of this holiday and on the needs of many who frequent to the more than 30-year-old soup kitchen. Last November, another team member of the inn wrote of her gratitude for “two decades of Franciscan service and teamwork,” in an essay for HNP Today.
Thanksgiving is a special time at soup kitchens. It’s all about donations, remembering the poor, food, giving, and bringing to mind all of God’s blessings with grateful hearts. All of that comes easily at a soup kitchen.
But there is one aspect of Thanksgiving that does not come easily: the celebration of “family.” That is a challenge. Many guests of soup kitchens are alone; some have been disowned by their relatives; some haven’t the social skills to keep friendships; some seniors have no one left.
Blessed Mother Teresa commented that in all of her world travels, she observed that the poor in America were the poorest of the poor. Not because they had the least, but that they were lonely. In other countries, the poor have one another and families that share their plight. But here in America, she would see one homeless person standing under a lamp post, another huddled in an alley, a third under a bridge — no companionship, no kindred spirit, no one with whom to share their burdens.
Here at St. Francis Inn, we try hard to let our guests know that they are part of our family. We don’t just distribute food, but we consciously try to build relationships with our guests and care for them “in an individual and personal way as is possible for us” as stated in our basic guidelines.
It is so gratifying when a guest comes to us and tells us of some personal good luck event, or confides in us with a problem and asks us to help, or just talks to us about his or her struggles and joys. When something happens to our guests, they call us from the hospital and ask us to visit. They bring newborn babies straight from the hospital here before they go home. Some guests call various members of the staff “Mom” or “Pop.” Many have said that we are the only family they have and list us as “next of kin.”
People hunger for more than food. They thirst for more than drink. They yearn for love, respect and family. The spirit of Thanksgiving reminds of this and compels us to be just that for others.
— Fr. Michael, a native of New Hampshire, is guardian of Juniper Friary in Philadelphia, across the street from St. Francis Inn.